Some people have wondered if the Dark Troopers might be stop-motion

They were not, but ‘The Mandalorian’s’ anim supe thought it was a fun observation.

A new kind of battle droid is featured in the second season of The Mandalorian: the Dark Troopers. The menacing robots manage to steal Grogu and almost thwart the plans of Mando and his team on Moff Gideon’s Light Cruiser, until they are dispatched by a certain Jedi Knight. In crafting those droids—which were largely CG but did incorporate suited performers on set—The Mandalorian animation supervisor Hal Hickel, who hails from ILM, looked to tap into his and Star Wars’ rich history of robots.

Here, befores & afters caught up with Hickel to discuss all things Dark Troopers, including giving them the right kind of personality, how particular fight and battle moments were handled, and even Hickel’s response to the suggestion that the Troopers may have been stop-motion.

b&a: What was the first thing you saw of the Dark Troopers as you came to work on this series, Hal?

Hal Hickel: I’m reasonably sure the first thing I saw was imagery and the design-scape that Doug Chiang produces. He’s got a big PDF document, if you will, of imagery, and it evolves over the course of the show. So it’ll be versioned and it gets pushed out to those of us that need to see it on a regular basis. Somewhere along the line, the Dark Trooper designs popped up in there—I think it was either there or a Third Floor previs where I got my first peek at it.

And I love robots. Robots are my thing, they’re my jam, so I was excited about it on that basis. Plus, the Dark Troopers kind of fly like Gigantor. I was a big Gigantor fan as a kid, although he flies with his hands forward, Superman-style. And so, that made me happy, so I was all-in. I was totally jazzed to do a new robot.

Dark Troopers flying concept art by Christian Alzmann, concept design supervisor at Lucasfilm.

b&a: One of the interesting things we all learnt from the behind-the-scenes for this series was that there was a combination of practical suits for the Dark Troopers, and CG—can you tell me a bit about the decision behind that?

Hal Hickel: There were 4 great-looking partial suits built by Legacy Effects, with the idea we would use them very much like we did L3-37 in Solo, where we keep the real parts and then you replace the insides with stuff that couldn’t be a person in a suit, such as wiring and making spaces that you can see through the machinery and so forth. That was the plan.

But you’re never sure, going into it, what the balance is going to be at the end. With L3, they very much kept all the real parts. That plan followed through all the way to the end. With our Hunter-Killer (HK) droids we did in Chapter 13, those were similar. They were partial costumes. But in the end, they were almost 100% replaced for a variety of reasons. Once we got the shots back, it was easier, frankly, to replace them entirely. And we were able to get as good a look.

Going into these Dark Troopers for the final episodes, they were done after we’d done the H-K droids, so we went into it thinking, ‘Well, it might be simpler to replace them, just because of the look of them, but let’s try and keep as much real stuff as we can.’ So we started picking out certain shots. Like, if a droid walked right up into camera, tight, we tried our best to keep all this real stuff that Legacy had made, because it was great-looking. And there’s a close-up shot, for instance, just before the elevator opens, and our Jedi hero dashes out, where the droid cocks his head. That’s the real suit. That’s the actor in the real suit.

There were a bunch of places where we kept little parts, because they looked great and, also, it’s good to confuse the audience about what techniques we’re using. Jon Favreau and I had done that a lot on the first Iron Man, where we mixed and matched pieces of the gorgeous Stan Winston Studios suit with our CG suit. We’d do a full replacement when we needed to, but we’d mix-and-match as needed. So we took that approach with the Dark Troopers.

I would say that by the time the dust had settled, they’re 95% CG. But the Legacy suits provided us with a great ground truth for what these things should look like and what the reflections should look like in that black armor. Even when we didn’t use it on-screen in the end, that practical suit gave us a great foundation to build the shots on and ensure that the CG we were creating was believable and realistic and reflecting light in the right way and had all the tactile-ness that it ought to have.

b&a: Because you had that reference and had the suit performers, what were you able to establish in terms of any personality traits of the Troopers? They had to look brutal but it felt like there was also a real personality to them.

Hal Hickel: Certainly on feature films, it can be like this, but I’ve found it even more so on a streaming service, where there’s a lot of episodes going at once and a lot of things going on at the same time, which means it gets harder and harder to do all the things you’d love to do. So, for instance, going into the Dark Troopers, I was like, ‘Man, it’d be great to get all the stunt performers together who are going to portray the Dark Troopers and talk about a movement style and figure it out and do some rehearsals and all that.’ Well, there was none of that. There was no time. So I don’t know for sure whether Peyton Reed had time to rehearse with them and give them his thoughts. I know he and I talked about it a little bit beforehand, then I talked about it with Richard Bluff, our visual effects supervisor. So there were a bunch of conversations going on, but I know that I didn’t get a chance to actually talk to the performers and have some kind of dialogue about, ‘How robotic should this be?’

That said, I think what they, the stunt performers, came up with was in the zone of what you finally see on scene, even though we didn’t end up using their movement literally. I don’t know if it was some of the same guys that played our security droids in season one but those guys did a great job as well, riding that line between robotic but still lethal.

Ken Steel was the anim supe at Hybride. I worked with him on the scene where the single Dark Trooper fights Mando, in the final episode, hand-to-hand. And in parallel with that, ILM was doing all the rest of the Dark Trooper stuff, where we see them landing in the ship and marching through the corridors and pounding the doors to get through, and then fighting Luke.

And so, I had two groups working at once, and I had to, at certain points, pull them in together. The ILM guys had established a really good walk that I liked a lot. Chris Lentz and his animators, in our London studio, were working on that initially. In the end, I think people from all of our studios ended up doing some of it—London, Singapore, Sydney and Vancouver (ILM’s visual effects supervisors were Jose Burgos, Jeff Capogreco, Dave Dally and Julian Foddy, and ILM’s animation supervisor was Paul Kavanagh).

They nailed a really good walk that I liked a lot. So I sent that over to Hybride to help them with their shots of when they first emerge from their charging stations and then start to come out of that room. Ken Steel and I had a whole dialogue going on about how they fight. There was a stunt performer in the suit as the Dark Trooper, fighting with Mando and tussling with him, so you’d have all the real physics. But we then had to look at that and decide how closely to follow that versus making things more robotic and powerful in terms of the robot’s movements.

Particularly with the ‘piston’ punching, when it’s got Mando pressed against the wall, and it’s punching his helmet and it’s sinking into the wall. There, we took a lot of liberties, where we weren’t following too closely what the stunt person had done, because we wanted to enhance the robotic-ness of it and length of the punch. In other areas, where they’re really grappling and tussling together, we kept quite close to what the stunt performer had done, because obviously, you don’t want to have too much paint-out. It didn’t make sense, really, to change it, because the physics were all there—they were all real between the two performers—and we wanted to preserve that.

b&a: There wasn’t any extra motion capture or performance capture or anything like that done?

Hal Hickel: For that particular fight, the stunt actor playing the Dark Trooper wasn’t wearing a Legacy Dark Trooper suit. I think they were wearing gray Imocap-style suits, but without being all markered up in the usual way. We knew we’d be roto-mating / animating over the top of them, so we didn’t really set things up in a way where we would actually be tracking markers on their body in an optical track sort of way.

b&a: Actually, what’s involved in that kind of thing—the match-moving, object-tracking stage, or early paint/roto stage for this kind of fight?

Hal Hickel: Well, going back to season one, with the security droid fight, those guys playing the security droids were wearing Xsens MVN suits—I think Image Engine did that sequence and it gave their animators some kind of basis for the droid motion. Although I think they probably had to modify it an awful lot, to the point, where at the end of it, it’s probably closer to key-frame animation than mo-cap, but at least it gave them a starting point.

We chose not to do that this time around, with the one-on-one fight, though we could have. There’s always those decisions about, ‘Do we want to have some kind of proper capture of the character?’, meaning say, a MVN suit, or optical capture. Do we want to do what we at ILM call Imocap, which is an ever improving on-set capture technology we had developed some years ago? Or, do we do neither of those and just put him in a suit with some markers on it, so that whether it’s an animator who’s roto-mating, or maybe a match-move artist who does a quick matching pass on the actor, they’ll have something to grab onto that’s not just mush, and particularly when things are motion blurred and what not. That was the route taken with that character.

For something like that, where it’s a single character fighting another character, you know you’re going to need to modify things a lot, because the final character, the Dark Trooper, is different enough from just the normal human actors, that you’re going to have make all kinds of adjustments. It almost doesn’t make sense to go the trouble of putting them in a MVN suit or putting them in some kind of optical tracking suit and doing all that.

I could see an argument for both, in this case, but we just decided not to. Then once it gets handed over, every place probably handles this a little differently. Sometimes it might go to layout first, to track the person, the stunt performer, or they might just match the camera and hand it off to anim, to just start doing that. Or it can be a combination of both.

And then sometimes if you know that large portions of the stunt actor are going to be visible, like, let’s say you’re going to be covering them up with a character that was quite skeletal, then it can be worth doing an early paint-out pass or patch-out pass, that’s even kind of crude, just so the anim renders that you’re going to be putting in front of the director for approval are easier to read, and you don’t have this skeletal robot thing on top of an actor that you can clearly see sliding around on top of each other. We didn’t have to do that with this because the Dark Troopers were so bulky that they pretty much covered the guy up, except in places where we really diverged from what the actor had done.

b&a: What do you review when you’re reviewing animation shots, and how does that work with you being more on the production side?

Hal Hickel: I want to see the rough, early pass. I want to see the blocking pass. And so, those are all plastic renders until you get up to a certain point. We had a bunch of shots this season, where Mando would throw one of those little bomblets, it would skitter along the floor and come to a stop, a couple different shots like that. I wouldn’t ask the team, ‘Are you key-framing this? Are you going to do a rigid body sim?’ The only time I would ask for those details is if I think that Jon might ask me for those details, which he sometimes does. Sometimes he’s very interested in those things, and sometimes he’ll want to know, ‘Well, what is that? Did you key-frame that, or was that some kind of sim?’

I have to give props to The Third Floor. They did some really terrific previs for that sequence when the droids fly down from the Light Cruiser and kidnap the Kid. Robert Rodriguez was pretty happy with that previs. And that’s one of the interesting things about working on the streaming series that I found, because one of my favorite things about the job is getting to know directors and working with them and figuring out what they like and don’t like.

And on a streaming series, you kind of get that in multiples, working with Bryce and working with Peyton, working with Robert, and then of course, Dave and Jon and Rick. In the case of Robert, it was interesting, because Jon Favreau is someone who typically treats previs as more of a vibe thing, to kind of get us to the next step, rather than as a blueprint. Whereas Robert gets really invested in the previs, and he takes part in it. He will craft chunks of previs himself, using all kinds of awesome and crazy techniques. Like he’ll do stop-motion with action figures and all kinds of great stuff, and his own sound effects and stuff. But even when he’s working with the previs team, in this case, Third Floor, he’s very specific about it.

So it was really interesting, as we moved into that episode, which was for many of us, our first time working with Robert. We had to find all that out and kind of really shift gears on how we were treating the previs, because we were used to, with Jon, kind of going, ‘Let’s riff on it and try a bunch of things.’ Whereas if we did that with Robert’s sequences, he would say, ‘Wait, why doesn’t this doesn’t look like my previs?’

So once we understood that, in some ways, it makes things a lot easier, because you know you’re executing a known thing that you’re after. For that reason, because Robert had worked with The Third Floor on it and was happy with the flying positions with their fists at their sides and all that stuff, was largely worked out for us by those guys. We just stuck to it. We tried to figure out things like, how much vibration to have on the limbs, and our tech-anim folks did some great stuff with water droplets running back over the surfaces of them, like condensation.

Again, our anim team did a great job and found a lot of room in there to discover things. But in broad strokes, the flying style of these guys and the way they kind of flip over ahead of landing and come down on their feet largely came from the previs. And then we just really tried to execute it in a way that was believable and had weight and all that stuff, as you do in anim.

b&a: When the Troopers were released from the charging area, I just loved some of the pipes exploding and everything there. How much of that was real and how much is CG animation?

Hal Hickel: It’s pretty much all CG. There was stuff shot with the guys in the suits, with some Freon or smoke-like atmospherics. They did shoot those scenes, and we had them as a starting point. And early on, there was a lot of back and forth about, ‘Well, maybe we keep this one practical, but this should be CG. Or we’ll do this one half-and-half.’ In the end, for a variety of reasons, I think pretty much all those shots are now CG, even the pipes popping off. But again, we had practical versions of many of those things to look at and base our stuff off of. If you change one thing, like the timing of the guy stepping out of the cell, and now he doesn’t work anymore with the practical vapor that was drifting down over him, well now you have to replace both the droid and the vapor.

But we did discover funny things like, for instance, where those hoses are attached when they pop off. There was really nothing there but smooth metal. So we had to come up with something. You’d have to look really closely to see it, but it’s a very thin, round line that suggests almost like there was something there, like when the hose was attached, it was recessed and allowed the coolant or power to come in. And at the moment it pops out, this plug pops into its place, but there’s just the thinnest little line to suggest that there was some kind of mechanism there. And we didn’t carry it through all the rest of the shots. We’re like, ‘All right, we’ll just do it in these close-ups and then we’ll never see it again…’.

For that choreography, the Busby Berkeley thing of them coming out from the sides and turning, and then when they begin to march forward, and what they’re doing with their weapons and all that, that all was a surprisingly lengthy process of iterating. Partly, because a scene like that is heavy. You’ve got dozens and dozens of these things. And so, it’s not quick to whip up animated mock-ups of this choreography versus that choreography. But also, because the cut was changing a little bit while we were working on it. And so, we were just having to make changes about, ‘Okay, maybe this is the scene where they bring their weapons up, and then we cut away to Mando or the other folks fighting, and then we come back. Maybe that’s the moment now that they start marching forward.’

And then we have to think about, ‘Okay, but how long are we away from them before the moment where we pick up Mando coming in and crossing the door? Does that seem like too much time for them to be marching?’ All kinds of questions about that. In the end, I think we ended up with a pretty good progression that didn’t raise too many questions in the audiences mind about why is it taking them so long to get out of their stations and get their weapons ready and start coming out of there, and Mando getting there just in time to close the door.

Then there’s that final shot for that sequence, where Mando throws the lever and opens the airlock, that was another one that was tough to conceptualize. Because again, it’s a heavy shot, with lots and lots of characters. And so, mocking up ideas was time-consuming. You weren’t getting lots of iterations on it, so we’d have long conversations. Then a few days later, we’d have a new take to discuss and long conversations with Peyton and Jon and I and Richard and everyone else on the call, about, ‘Do we want to cut to some camera angles inside, once the doors start to open? Do we need to keep it all from Mando’s point of view through the window?’ For that shot, we talked a lot about the end of Aliens, when Ripley is in the Power Loader, and the mother alien is there, clinging to her foot. There aren’t a lot of direct shot parallels in there, but just in terms of vibe, we’re like, ‘Yeah, it wants to feel like when he throws the lever, and the red light starts spinning, and the door opens, and maybe there’s vapour.’ All that stuff came out of conversations, but I know Aliens was in the mix a lot when we were talking about that moment, even a just quick little bit, where he sends them out there, but that was kind of part of our inspiration for that.

b&a: Was there anything else about the Dark Troopers that you wanted to mention?

Hal Hickel: Well, I’ve had a couple people on social media ask me—it was in the context of when Phil Tippett posted about the stop-motion work they did for this season, the scrap-walkers—I had a couple different people say, ‘Was there any stop-motion used on the Dark Troopers? Sometimes they look like stop-motion.’ I think they meant it in a good way. There was just some quality of the movement. And I really dug it. I mean, I was like, ‘Oh, no, but that’s cool.’

Part of making them look sort of powerful and menacing is that on each step they take, you want a sensation of force and weight. And so, part of that is jiggling little parts of their machinery. It’s the same thing we did with Gipsy Danger in Pacific Rim, in a much slower way. When you got something that big, and you can’t jiggle the whole thing because it’s got so much mass, you look for little bits of machinery and parts on it that can jiggle a little separately. Same as you do with a fleshy creature, where you do muscle jiggle and skin jiggle and those kind of things. And I wonder if that perception of the stop-motion came from that, because they’d take a step, and we’d have little bits on them kind of rattle and stuff. But it was kind of a cool question, and I thought, ‘I wonder what’s giving that impression?’ Or maybe there’s some shots in there with less motion blur than there otherwise might be, I don’t know. It’s an interesting question.

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